I haven't contacted my old friend, but I did follow up a couple of leads from her Twitter page and found out that she is a successful instructor and administrator; she is also a mother. It was exciting to find her on the web. I even got to read some of her professional blog. I felt happy for her achievements and success, but I faltered at the idea of contacting her. I looked at myself and felt self conscious. And then I started looking more closely at my life and the choices I made and I wondered when precisely did I become mentally ill or had I always been mentally ill? Everyone has disadvantages in their life, but not everyone becomes mentally ill because of them. Why did I? Is an illness like schizophrenia purely a genetic flaw or do I hold some responsibility for becoming ill? Am I off the hook and not responsible for causing my illness or am I on the hook living the consequences of my actions? Did I, by my choices, turn myself into a schizophrenia sufferer? As always, the answer lies all mixed up, part biological, part personal inclination, part circumstantial.
I had experienced psychotic symptoms before I began hearing voices in my mid twenties, I just didn't know that it was psychosis at the time. I was kind of proud to be a little weird. I looked askance at those who seemed to fit in to school. I didn't trust that people who seemed to be normal, were normal. I bordered on anti-social, except for a few close friends and my family. It was the mid 1970s in New York City and punk was branching out into new wave music. I was responding to Elvis Costello, the Talking Heads, Rikki Lee Jones, the B-52s, cut my hair real short and wore thrift store clothing. My two favorite jackets were a faded jean jacket with a marijuana leaf sewn onto the back of the jacket (though I didn't smoke very often then) and a too large for me man's black jacket. I had an old fashioned camper's knapsack on which I wrote the quote from a Crosby, Stills and Nash song: "If you smile at me, I will understand, 'cause that is something everybody, everywhere does in the same language."
Going to high school in Manhattan and returning home to Brooklyn sometimes late at night, made me street savvy. I dressed down, stayed low key, didn't make much eye contact, moved quickly in the streets. I did not like the subways, but I used them all the time, much more than buses and I never hailed a taxi, though I may have ridden in one a couple of times with friends. I walked around with a pocket full of change to give to the homeless outside the subway stations. In Brooklyn, I lived in comfort. I had my own room, my own black and white television, my own telephone on the top floor of a 3 story brownstone. I had a lot of privacy. I did my school work and didn't get into any trouble. I was just another moody teenager, a bit too withdrawn maybe, but okay it seemed.
What are the signs to watch for in the young? Social withdrawal, difficulty making friends, few extra curricular activities, an aversion to competition, little interest in getting a job, not talking in classes. Who can get a youngster back on the right track? Parents, teachers, friends, siblings. I don't know about other kids, but I needed more guidance and structure, more mentoring. My self-esteem had been shaky since I was little, despite doing well in school. Doing well in school was not enough to turn me into a well adjusted adult, I needed a bridge and a push. My tendency was to withdraw and avoid. But how do you get a withdrawn kid to get involved? You pay attention and you say something. Set up challenges and accessible goals to achieve. You stay encouraging. You teach by example. But mostly you pay attention. Young people need special attention from some adult or a strong positive social network.
The internet is a powerful tool and I think it's changing things for people who suffer from mental illness. People like myself, young and old, who tend to be socially withdrawn can make contact with other people who have similar interests and/or problems. If you take the initiative, there are many places to fit in. It still can't take the place of face to face connections, but it lessens some of the isolation, provides information and support. What I wish is that more people were forming groups on the internet whose members are from specific local communities. The two groups I would like to join locally are the artists and the mentally ill, even better mentally ill artists like myself. Ideally, I would find a local group online, join, get to know the members, and then form an offline support group.
I formed an online mental health group for my town and area, posted my cards in town, but no one showed up and I felt discouraged and a bit embarrassed. I still hope someone will make use of that group, but I haven't advertised it enough. But some good news is that I visited the NAMI (National Alliance On Mental Illness) site and discovered that there is a NAMI representative in a town that's about a half and hour away and she left her phone number and email, so I emailed her and am hoping she will respond sometime soon. There's a slight chance that there is a support group available. May it be so.
It still shocks me that I have never been to a mental health support group for my illness and that I know no one personally who suffers from it. My therapist and psychiatrist vaguely assert that they know there are other people who suffer from schizophrenia in this area, but I have no knowledge of who they are. The stigma of the illness makes people stay anonymous. In my small town, I'm pretty sure the word is long since out that I suffer from schizophrenia, partly because I let it out to teachers when I was at school and partly because I told my brother that he could be open to his friends about my illness. It's not that I want people to point at me and say "There goes the town schizophrenic." I want to reassure people that there is a reason why my lawn is not always mown, why my car is in my driveway nearly always, why I rarely have visitors, why the lights stay on sometimes into early morning, why I don't have a husband/boyfriend, children, friends or a job. I'm the crazy artist woman, the sister of a very smart, very verbal lay musicologist-soccer devotee who hangs out at the local bars; I am harmless. I'm pleasant to the bank tellers, the wait persons, the pharmacist and his assistants, the postal workers. I get my meds and I take my meds and I don't make a scene because my psychosis is no longer so acute. I'm seen sometimes in my brother's company. Am I the only psychotic person in town? I don't know, but I'm certainly not the only mentally ill person in town, I just kind of feel that way. Which is why a NAMI support group nearby would be a golden opportunity to meet at least a few other people who suffer from some sort of mental illness.
A Recovery Blog
This blog is about my continuing recovery from severe mental illness. I celebrate this recovery by continuing to write, by sharing my music and artwork and by exploring Buddhist ideas and concepts. I claim that the yin/yang symbol is representative of all of us because I have found that even in the midst of acute psychosis there is still sense, method and even a kind of balance. We are more resilient than we think. We can cross beyond the edge of the sane world and return to tell the tale. A deeper kind of balance takes hold when we get honest, when we reach out for help, when we tell our stories.